Sunday, June 05, 2011

Veterans Unemployment

A number of articles recently have focused on the disturbing fact that the unemployment rate for veterans is significantly higher than it is for non-veterans. I just read a piece in the Navy Times about it, but the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times (really good), Yahoo.com, and many more have also published articles on the subject. Young veterans from the post-9/11 world have an unemployment rate in general of over 20%. In some areas of the country, though, it's over 40%. Vets who've been out in the civilian world for a while have a much lower rate, indicating that most of them were able to make the transition and build solid civilian resumes before the recession hit. Those making the transition now, though, are having an extremely hard time.

As everybody knows, the current employment situation (to use a highly technical term) sucks. Unemployment remains high and shows no sign of improvement anytime soon. A new report says that only 54,000 new jobs were created last month. This is about 150,000 less than needed to keep up with population growth, much less recover from the 8,000,000 jobs lost during the recession (thank you, Wall Street). So anybody who's in the job market faces an uphill battle.

For companies that are looking to hire, they're in the catbird seat. They often get over 100 applications for any decent position, so they can specify in great detail what kind of candidate they think they want. And so they do. Most of the job descriptions I see have a laundry list of required qualifications: highly specialized training, certification in this or that field, X number of years experience doing exactly the job that they're hiring for, and so on. Years ago, when I saw such lists of requirements, I could assume with some certainty that they already had a candidate in mind and were just going through the job announcement motions for legal or CYA reasons. Now, though, they'll probably have a number of candidates to choose from.

But are these really the characteristics they should be looking for? Not necessarily. I think that a truly successful employee is successful because of other reasons: dedication, drive, flexibility, perseverance, teamwork, leadership skills, and loyalty, to name a few. Yet these characteristics are almost never mentioned. It seems as if employers are missing the person in their search for a specialized technical widget. In my experience, technical skills can be learned relatively quickly by a reasonably-intelligent person with a reasonably-applicable background. But it's the personal characteristics that will make the new employee a success or not.

Our young veterans have those personal characteristics that civilian employers should be looking for. Just the fact that they successfully completed their service, whether for 3 or 30 years, shows that they have dedication drive, flexibility, perseverance, teamwork, leadership skills, and loyalty. They may not have the latest CISSP or PMP certification because they spent three of the past five years in Iraq or Afghanistan, getting impossible jobs done under arduous conditions.

I agree that much of the onus is on the veteran to translate his/her military experience into terms that a civilian can understand. Over the past several months, I've gotten a lot better at doing that. Still, civilian employers need to be more aware of what it is they're asking for. If all they're asking for are technical widgets, well, be careful what you ask for. If they're looking for people who can do amazing things, then look at the veterans.

I just don't want to see a bumper sticker that says: "WE PROUDLY SUPPORT OUR TROOPS. WE JUST DON'T HIRE THEM."

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